WATERTOWN – For people with severe symptoms of COVID-19, the monoclonal antibody therapy offered at Samaritan Medical Center can save their lives.
But for people infected with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, it may take some time before the right treatments are available.
Kelly A. Harrienger is a nurse at Samaritan, and her duties include supervising infusion therapy for patients who are referred by their attending physician.
“It’s fabulous,” she said of the antibody infusion therapy. “We’ve done a lot of follow-up calls with the patients, and they say within 24 to 28 hours is like day and night, they feel a lot better.”
One of those patients is Haley Reff, who is also a Samaritan nurse. In November, she tested positive for COVID-19 and symptoms quickly set in.
âMy original symptoms were a severe cold, an upper respiratory infection,â Ms. Reff said. âI was very short of breath, I couldn’t taste or smell. “
She was also 19 weeks pregnant. When her test came back positive, the hospital recommended that she continue with the monoclonal antibody treatment if her doctors suggested it. Her primary care doctor and obstetrician-gynecologist both said it was a safe option and that she had an appointment scheduled a few days later.
The treatment itself is an intravenous infusion of cloned antibodies, selected for their ability to target protein spikes outside of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. Once the antibodies bind to the virus, they prevent it from entering the patient’s cells and replicating, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Ms Reff said she was looking for an option to relieve her symptoms and didn’t expect much when she sat in the chair for her hour-long infusion. But after she was done with that and the extra hour of observation, she started to feel better quickly.
âI recommend it to anyone I know who has tested positive,â she said.
The numbers also indicate the effectiveness of the treatment. According to Samaritan spokesman Leslie M. DiStefano, only 3.4% of patients who receive the treatment have to return to the hospital later.
“It’s a real victory that this treatment keeps people out of the hospital, in their homes to recover, and they don’t have to come here for an inpatient stay,” said Ms. DiStefano.
Keeping people out of hospital for extended stays is the ultimate goal, as the national hospital system is crumbling under the weight of hundreds of thousands more patients than those typically treated. Hospitals in the north of the country have fluctuated between 80 and 90% filling in recent weeks.
Ms Harrienger said Samaritan has been rapidly treating people with monoclonal antibodies for months, sometimes as many as 24 people per day for a total of 794 patients being treated, but is slowing down as stocks of the appropriate drugs dwindle.
The state recently ordered that monoclonal antibody treatment be given priority to those who need it most, so that not all people who test positive and show symptoms can receive it. Staff shortages in the health care sector made it difficult to get nurses to run the infusions.
To further complicate the situation, the Omicron variant can only be treated with one monoclonal treatment at this time. Sotrovimab, produced by GlaxoSmithKline, appears to work well against the Omicron variant, while previous versions of the infusion that worked for delta variant infections do not have much effect.
âWe have a very small supply, and the federal government and New York State anticipate a shortage of supply at this point, until they can make it readily available,â Ms. DiStefano said.
For now, people who test positive for COVID-19 should discuss any potential treatment options with their doctors, especially if they start to experience strong symptoms. Ms DiStefano said anyone referred for monoclonal antibody treatment will be assessed against anyone else referred. Only the highest priority patients will be able to receive doses.
The loss of a tool that kept more than 700 people out of hospital could mean more people in hospital again, but Ms DiStefano said the recent rollout of two new COVID-19 antiviral drugs in the form of tablets should help.
âTwo pharmacies locally will be administering this drug by mouth, so that should help,â she said. âThere is proven data to show that they reduce hospitalizations. We believe that between the current infusion therapy and oral medication in pharmacies, we should have a bit of a break.